The meaning of colors in different cultures
Life is not in black and white, it is a blank canvas that needs many colors to display the beauty of nature, animals, and human beings. No matter if you are looking through the window or choosing a product, the importance of colors is seen everywhere. It’s vital in advertising, home decor, culture, and even in day-to-day visual language. Did you know there is a color of the year that will define design trends for the next 12 months?
Hues and shades are the responsibility of graphic designers and creatives, but they provide a significant contribution to all the cultures around the world too. Did you know that colors have different meanings depending on the country or that they can affect your mood?
This post reviews the significance of hues in areas like psychology, symbolism, color theory, and how different cultures harness shades. Do you want an answer to questions like what does color red mean in different cultures? Would you like to create the perfect color palette? Keep reading and let colors influence your soul!
Soil, minerals, and charcoal: the beauty of the first pigments
Although it may seem to be something new, the use of pigments started thousands of years ago to express ideas, stories, feelings and many other things.
People of the ancient world obtained different types of black, red, and white that they developed through using different techniques and materials. There was a very special sort of black that was produced by using charred bones, known as bone black. This pigment is so intense that it has been cherished by painters and other artists centuries after its creation, and even today. Rembrandt, the famous Dutch artist, loved this deep shade.
There were other pigments produced using carbon, earth, blood, minerals, and lime at the time, such as the famous burnt sienna, which is an earth pigment. Eventually, new pigments appeared: new shades of purple, carmine, or blue flooded painting. All of them are used nowadays. But not everything was natural. Later on, ancient Egyptians created a synthetic blue to avoid the costs of pigments created with lapislazuli, which was very expensive at the time.
The science behind colors
Colors play a very special role in society. You can express a lot of things using them, and they are key in flags, art, clothing, and just about everything. But to analyze how they can be mixed and their visual effect, it is worth studying the science behind tints, hues, and shades. This is known as color theory.
It revolves around a series of concepts, like the color wheel. This color arrangement helps in the creation of palettes, taking into account color harmony. This wheel comprehends primary, secondary, and tertiary colvaleors, divided into color temperature–warm and cool hues. To sum up, primary colors cannot be formed by combining other colors. Secondary ones are created mixing primary colors, and tertiary hues are obtained mixing primary and secondary hues.
This color wheel and the arrangement of hues come in handy when creating harmonic palettes. One way of doing so is by using analogous colors. They sit next to one another on the wheel, producing very pleasing combinations, like light blue and green. If you are looking for something bold, complementary colors are for you: this is the case of red and green. If you prefer having both contrast and harmony, try triadic colors. These three hues appear evenly spaced around the wheel, creating a very dynamic combination as in the case of red, yellow, and blue. Many brands use triadic colors for their logos.
In addition, color wheels are perfect to spot colors that go with yellow, for example. But why do brands use color theory to create their palettes and marketing campaigns? That’s because colors have a psychological impact on us.
Color psychology and marketing
Colors have the power of making people feel certain emotions. Did you realize that turquoise and seafoam green can be very soothing, as they resemble the quietness of the deep sea? A clear example of this is found in Japan: the Tokyo train stations were painted in blue as a measure to improve people’s mental health and well-being, and the project turned out to be a great success.
The importance of color in areas like psychology and marketing is undeniable. Hues affect emotions, and emotions affect decisions. Marketers know this, and they use certain colors and shades as valuable tools to create an impact. Each brand has its own color palette, something that is also applied to websites, depending on what they want to tell. For example:
- Red is the color of strength, power, war, passion, and love. It even raises blood pressure, so it’s related to impulsiveness.
- Blue is about peace, communication, finance and authenticity.
- Orange traditionally means energy, happiness, joy, and determination.
- Pink is the color of gentle love, youth, and femininity.
- Yellow is the tint of the Sun, energy, intelligence and it gets people’s attention easily.
- Green is the hue of nature, calmness, hope, and sincerity.
Those are just a few connotations related to some of the most basic colors. If you want to promote your company giving a feeling of wealth and exclusivity, you must use tons of black to highlight the luxurious nature of the brand. Likewise, champagne color is about sophistication and comfort, so these two would work very well together to advertise exclusive clothes or furniture.
Those are just a few connotations related to some of the most basic colors. However, if you’re aiming to infuse your company’s identity with a sense of gentle charm and a touch of nostalgia, consider incorporating pastel colors. While black is often chosen to emphasize the luxurious nature of a brand, pastel shades can bring a unique subtlety and freshness. For instance, a palette of pastel mint and soft lavender could evoke a feeling of vintage elegance and modern innovation, making it a perfect choice to showcase artisanal products or boutique accessories. Similarly, the champagne color, with its air of sophistication and comfort, can harmonize beautifully with pastel tones to create a captivating visual narrative. Choosing the right color for your brand may seem a complex matter, but when you take color psychology into consideration, your creations will resonate better with your audience.
Although it’s clear that choosing the best tones for your marketing campaigns is necessary, it’s also crucial to adapt them to different countries. Color perception is closely linked to factors like culture, age, gender, religion, and even health–it has been proved that people suffering from depression tend to prefer gray over other colors. Black is a mourning color in Spain, however, the Chinese use white for that purpose, so it’s worth your while doing the research, and adapting your color palettes to fit the criteria.
How is color interpreted in different cultures?
Color symbolism in different cultures
The meanings of colors are not universal. The colors stand as a cultural symbol. There is a brief list of colors together with their symbolisms according to geographical areas:
- Red: Red is connected to life itself, as it is the color of blood. It is also the hue of war, excitement, and danger. In South Africa, it represents mourning, while in India and other Asian countries brides use red for their wedding dresses. It has to do with good luck, happiness, beauty, and fertility.
- Yellow: Yellow is the hue used to express happiness and hope, no matter the country. In Japan, yellow is also associated with beauty and aristocracy, although in Western countries it has some negative connotations, like jealousy, sadness, and danger.
In the East, it is an imperial color.
- Blue: Blue is the color of corporatism in the Western world. It also represents peace, truth, and calmness there. For Eastern cultures, blue is the color of immortality, although Japan uses it to represent everyday life. In Egypt, blue is the hue of virtue.
Blue is a very spiritual color: for Christians, blue is linked to Christ and the Virgin Mary. Hindus think that it’s the color of Khrisna and Jews believe that blue is the most sacred tone.
- Green: Did you know that green means shame in China? This can be shocking, as green usually stands for luck, hope, nature, and fertility in the Western civilization.
- Orange: In the Netherlands, orange is the color that represents the royal family. From a more spiritual point of view, orange is the most important hue for Buddhists and Hindus as can be seen in the colors used for rahki, Onam images or representations of the hindu gods, like Navratri.
- Black: In the West, black is the shade for those who are grieving, while in countries like India it’s used as a protection against evil. Likewise, it’s the hue of mystery and death for the Japanese.
- White: Some countries use white to represent death, ghosts, as in the East or ancient Egypt. In the West, white is the color of purity and virginity. Curiously, for Bedouins it’s considered a happy color that means fertility and gratitude, as it is the color of milk–one of the staple foods included in their diets.
- Purple: Purple represents royalty in the West, as the pigment to obtain this color was extremely difficult to find and very expensive. The same happened in the East, where purple stands wealth because of that costly dye.
Learning more about the symbolism of hues according to the different cultures, you can also gain knowledge of how to combine colors in your presentations to get the most out of each country’s audiences.
Clothing, a matter of sociological perception
Clothes can convey a lot of messages. Depending on the color and type of clothing, one can assume if someone is getting married, having a job interview, or if the person is sad due to the loss of a loved one, but did you know that all of that depends on culture? Let’s see a few examples.
Black is the mourning color in the Western world. European countries and North America associate this hue to the loss of a loved one. Supposedly, this tradition of wearing black at funerals began with the Romans, although it reached a peak during the 19th century, when Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert died. The Queen of Victorian Britain wore black to represent her grief for almost four decades.
On the other hand, East Asian countries like China and Japan typically use white as the grieving hue, mainly because of religious connotations. For them and for many Buddhist countries, white represents rebirth and purity, and death is very much associated with reincarnation and the quietness of this process. They also use it because white can be seen as the paleness caused by death, further representing emptiness and the great beyond.
Some other countries like Thailand and some parts of South America, use purple. In Thailand, only the widows wear this color, while the rest of the mourners wear black. In Brazil, both black and purple are the colors of grief and it’s considered a bad omen wearing purple at any occasion that is not related to death. For Christians, purple is associated with the crucifixion of Jesus and the pain he suffered.
Color red would never be worn at a funeral in China. On the contrary,people used it in South Africa during the apartheid era (1948-1994) as a parallelism between the mourning and suffering that the the the people endured.
If you live in Europe or other countries of the Western world, brides usually wear white as a symbol of purity. It became the most popular wedding color because of Queen Victoria, as she wore it at her wedding. Lately, brides from these parts of the world wear not only white, but also ivory or eggshell and other similar tints. Japanese brides also wear white kimonos made of silk, sometimes with some decorations in red.
Likewise, other countries prefer red for wedding gowns, like India, Pakistan, and China. That is because red has a lot of positive connotations there, mostly related to good luck. In Taiwan, brides can choose to wear red or white, due to the western influence. Kurds also chose red in the past, as it meant purity for them.
In areas like Ghana, the wedding colors mostly depend on the family, but they always need to be very bright. Alternatively, brides prefer blue or even deep blue in Vietnam.
Color and religion: Islam
White is the color of faith, it’s a positive hue that is related to purity. The Quran depicts it as the color of people’s faces on the Day of Judgement. Even Muhammad recommended people to dress in white when he was preaching. On the contrary, black represents sadness, death, melancholy, and the sinners’ face, but it is also used to talk of victory. For example, Muhammad wore a black head cover when he entered Mecca as a leader.
Green is one of the most important hues for Muslims, as it is seen as the color of Muhammad. First, because it is found in nature, and second because in heaven, believers’ clothing and furniture are of the color green. According to Islam, it’s also the color of birth, fertility, and growth.
As for red, Islam sees it an ambivalent hue, as it’s the color of love, but also fire, blood, and war.
The last color that appears in the Quran is yellow. It was used as a way of differentiating men and women, as it was prohibited for males. On the other hand, it also described nature, the cow that Moses sacrificed and the fires in hell.
Flags, a mix of color and cultures
Flags are the most notable archetypes of each country. They help people unite under the same colors and with a common aim, creating empowering feelings of patriotism. Flags tell people that they belong in a certain place, and they are strongly influenced by a particular culture, religion, or history of that country. Some of them bear crosses, as in the case of the Union Jack or the Finnish flag, or even swords as in the flag of Sri Lanka; some others can be grouped by the geometrical shapes that they display, but all share the use of a series of colors to provide representation.
Flags always show a series of tints, mainly shades of red, white, and blue, colors that represent a series of values related to countries. Other colors such as purple, are out of the question when it comes to flags. The issue with purple has to do with economic reasons, as it was the most expensive tint to obtain in ancient times.
But going back to red, it can be identified with the color of blood and its deep connection with war, but it is also related to patriotism, strength, courage, and energy. All those are desirable characteristics for any country, so it’s no wonder red plays a main role.
Likewise, white and blue tend to be the perfect counterparts for red, as they are more linked to peace and natural elements. White stands for purity and calmness for most cultures, while blue is the color of truth, peace, and of natural elements like the sea and the sky. These hues also denote nobility, as in the case of the French flag and its revolutionary past. As for the flag of the United States, blue is more related to justice and perseverance. Here, red stands for readiness to sacrifice, so this combination describes, in a visual way, the American dream.
Green is also included in many flags, mostly in Africa, as it is the color of Islam, but also of nature, crops, and fertility. It usually appears with yellow and red too. These three colors are in fact considered Africa’s colors of culture.
Colors can affect moods, convey powerful emotions, increase sales, or enhance the values of different cultures. To create the perfect color palette for your projects or campaigns, pay attention to colorimetry and the symbolism of each hue in your country specific projects. Success is no accident!